Reference rates23.01.2018 / 1.2249 / 7.8466
Drones Lure Young Chinese Back to Farming
When Guo Jianzhen was a teenager, he would help out in his family’s cotton fields during summer vacations. Carrying a box containing 15 liters of mepiquat chloride on his back, Guo walked the fields of Xinjiang, in far-flung northwestern China, spraying chemicals on the plants to stunt the growth of their stalks and increase the size of their flowers.
For the young boy, the task was arduous. The July sun was scorching, and working for three hours in the morning exhausted his strength to the extent that he could barely stand with the box on his back. Once, he felt so overwhelmed that he couldn’t stand back up after sitting down, like a turtle that has been turned onto it back. “I was so angry at myself that I burst into tears,” remembers the stocky, gregarious Guo. “I thought, ‘It’s so hard being a farmer!’”
A decade later, Guo, now 25, stills manages his family’s crops — only these days he does so using one of the world’s most popular high-tech gadgets: an unmanned aerial vehicle, better-known as a drone.
With the help of a drone, Guo can accomplish in 15 minutes a job that used to take him three exhausting hours. He types in the coordinates, presses a button, and covers the 150 mu (nearly 25 acres) of land in chemicals. (Mu is a unit of area in China approximately equal to one-sixth of an acre.) “These drones represent the future [of agriculture],” Guo said.
China’s drone industry is in flux. Instead of creating machines exclusively for amateur photographers, manufacturers are catching on to the vast potential for drones in commercial agriculture. Drones can spray crops with pesticides, weed-killers, and growth regulators 30 to 60 times faster than a person wandering the fields with a tank strapped to their back. Because of their efficient, even spraying, drones also use half as much chemical formula and 90 percent less water. In Japan, drones already help to manage 54 percent of all farmland. In China, that percentage is still in the single digits, though it’s steadily rising.
In December 2015, there were 100 companies in China producing agricultural drones, including DJI, the world’s leading consumer drone maker. Industry analyst iResearch notes that investments in drone companies have boomed from 65 million yuan ($9.4 million) in 2013 to 1.7 billion yuan in 2015.
In addition, agri-drone companies now offer to spray chemicals on farmland from around 8 yuan per mu. There are currently more than 2,300 agricultural drones in use in China, but Shen Jianwen, who runs a drone manufacturing company in Wuxi, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, estimates that by 2020, 100,000 drones and 400,000 pilots will be required to meet demand from the farming sector.
Xinjiang is the perfect testing ground for this kind of technology, as drones function better on large, geometric patches of land. In China’s more populous areas, such as the coastal provinces, farmers often parcel the land into smaller, irregularly shaped plots; the fields of Xinjiang, however, lie on an expansive, featureless plain. While the average Chinese peasant family owns just 7 mu of land, it’s not uncommon for farming families in Xinjiang to own 1,000 mu or more.
When Guo graduated from university, farming was not his first choice for a career. His parents had planned a more stable, lucrative future in the city for him and his younger brother, away from their rural roots. To that end, Guo earned a degree in electrical engineering and automation from the Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in 2014, and landed a clerk’s job in a government office tasked with promoting investment in Yuli County, an agricultural area 50 kilometers south of Guo’s hometown of Korla.
But this job lasted less than a year, as Guo began to hear about ambitious, technology-driven agriculture projects. Though he knew nothing about drones, he was fascinated by the idea of using machines instead of men to spray pesticides. Quickly tiring of his humdrum office job, Guo resigned after four months and joined XAircraft, a drone manufacturer that had just launched an agricultural division in Yuli. Guo was their sixth employee.
Guo’s mother was unimpressed by her son’s new job. She couldn’t understand why, after all his work to gain a degree and find a stable job, he wanted to go back to “dusty” work in the fields. “She told me I had done enough farmwork as a child,” recalled Guo. “But my experience led me to think that if the drone business worked out, it would end up having a huge impact on agriculture.”
Since his career change, Guo has been promoted to assistant to the general manager of XAircraft’s Xinjiang branch, where the company trains drone pilots. The local operation has grown to include 600 staff members, and Guo’s first client was his own father.